Saint John developer delays construction on former Woolworth's site

·3 min read
The lot at 91 King Street in Saint John as it appears today. (Steven Webb/CBC - image credit)
The lot at 91 King Street in Saint John as it appears today. (Steven Webb/CBC - image credit)

The developer behind a proposed building on prime real estate in uptown Saint John says the project has been delayed by large cost increases.

When developer Percy Wilbur announced he had purchased the lot at the corner of King and Charlotte streets, a lot of people expressed relief.

Often described by Saint Johners as 'the old Woolworth's,' despite the chain going out of business in 1994, the building had been vacant for almost a decade when Wilbur bought it in late 2020 for $900,000.

By that time it had deteriorated badly, with peeling paint, broken windows and graffiti outside, and lots of water damage inside.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Wilbur said it was clear the building couldn't be saved, and he proposed tearing it down and replacing it with a 12-storey, multi-use building.

It would have commercial space on the lower floors and 90 to 95 apartments above.

The old building was demolished last June, leaving a large crater on the lot surrounded by what was left of the foundation walls.

At the time, Wilbur said it would take two-and-a-half years to build his project.

But, a year later, the site looks pretty much as it did last summer.

"Well, in the last five months of 2021, the cost to construct increased by over $8 million," Wilbur told Information Morning Saint John.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

"That's not something you can budget for. So indeed, it has to be scaled back in some direction."

Wilbur said most of that cost was in materials, although the increase in interest rates in recent months has added to the budget, too.

"The cost of construction has gone up by close to 40 per cent … So there's global issues in supply chain and market instability with … the effects of inflation. It's just a, what do you call it, a perfect storm of all these increases."

"So I can't commit to something at this stage," Wilbur said.

Meanwhile, the demolition site is surrounded by concrete barriers and chain link fences, taking up both sidewalk and street space.

City of Saint John/PAC
City of Saint John/PAC

"I had approached the city about bringing the barriers back in [toward the site] and giving the streets and sidewalks and South Market Street back to the public, because we knew that at that point … it wouldn't be happening for some time until we redesign things," Wilbur said.

But, he said city staff rejected the idea.

In an email, Amy Poffenroth, the city's director of permitting and development, said "at this time the sidewalks remain closed for public safety reasons."

"The City continues to evaluate the complexity of the project and can provide more information once details are available."

Robert Jones / CBC News
Robert Jones / CBC News

Wilbur said he'll likely need to make the apartments a bit smaller to decrease the cost of the project and then wait for the economic conditions to improve before he could start construction.

"I'm not going to go bankrupt over trying to make an eyesore look better and construct for the sake of construction. It has to be a business model that works," he said.

So, Saint Johners may have to put up with the unpleasant-looking site for a while, which Wilbur acknowledged.

"Well, I'm somewhat embarrassed by the eyesore that I've created. I've taken one eyesore and created another. And we are working towards a strategy to clean up the site."

Wilbur said he would present that plan to city staff soon.


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